“Fear is the mother of character. Without it we remain children until death.”
-Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow
Vivienne had once spent a few days running a shell game in the streets of Southpool, when she’d still been an apprentice under the Guild. It hadn’t been about the coin, for she could have made a hundred times the coppers from burgling a single noble house. Her teacher had teased her about it, calling her a petty hustler instead of a thief, but what she’d learned had been well worth a few sardonic comments. Confidence tricks were about sleight of hand, but also about reading the other side. Gauging how much of a taste you had to give them before the fleecing, how much you could squeeze out of them before things got ugly. She’d learned more about diplomacy over those three lazy days than through years of lessons. It was why she’d pressed to be the one sent to speak with the Proceran envoys, that and the undeniable fact that if Marshal Juniper went instead it would be a bloody disaster. The orc had a place as one of the larger cogs in the kingdom’s machinery, but she was useless in all matters not military. That the Marshal of Callow seemed under the impression that her judgement off the battlefield should ever be seriously considered was just a mark of the greenskin’s arrogance.
A child that screamed ‘kill them all and eat them’ every time you glanced at them would be about as useful.
Thief had been forced to lean on the open trust Catherine had shown her in the past to be nominated, and the heavy-handedness had won her no friends in the general staff – which essentially ran the camp while Cat slumbered. The usual deference shown to Named by mundane apparently thinned when said Named had been late to join the cause. Callowans listened to her, and her role as spymistress of the kingdom meant she had most everyone’s ear, but there were few of her countrymen high up in the ranks save for Grandmaster Talbot. For all that the rank and file of the Army of Callow drew increasingly from her people, the senior officers were still largely from from the three legions Catherine had brought to her banner. Vivienne saw no need to take issue with that. Officers died and retired, and the Legions promoted strictly from within the ranks. Her countrymen would keep rising up the ladder until ‘Army of Callow’ was more than a name. Any halfway decent thief knew that patience was as useful a tool as action, and Vivienne was a better thief than most. More importantly, after securing her role she’d had free hand to deal with the envoys as she wished.
First off, there would be no talk of allowing them into the camp. Let them remain outside under their banner with the morning sun pounding down. They’d shown up around Morning Bell, so Vivienne had let them stew outside for another hour. There was no guarantee she would manage to fool the opposition, and the longer they stayed there the better the chances of Catherine or Masego waking up. She’d not dared to let them wait longer than that. If she did, it might be recognized as the temporizing it was. An hour should just be taken as an insult instead of betraying the relative weakness of the Callowan position. She’d gone out alone to meet them, afterwards. Vivienne knew she could master her own body language if she concentrated, but anyone else was a risk. The two men were still standing when she arrived, and discreetly she studied them as she drew near. One was obvious, the wrinkly old man they knew as the Grey Pilgrim. The other was known to her as well, as it turned out. The distinct nose marked him as a relative of Prince Amadis Milenan and the long curly locks were distinctive enough she recognized them from a sketch her Jacks had obtained. Jacques Milenan, a younger cousin to the Prince of Iserre. His mother was… from an Alamans royal line, though she could not recall which one at the moment. The man was supposed to be high in Milenan’s council. Which meant they were taking this seriously.
While she’d assessed them, they’d assessed her. The Pilgrim’s face was perfectly calm, a mask she suspected he’d worn for so long there had come to be some truth to it. Vivienne knew something of pretending to be someone for long enough the deception grew roots and leaves. Thief swaggered forward, producing her flask and pulling at the brandy inside. She sloppily wiped her mouth after and silently used her aspect to trade the flask for an identical one that was the same drink, only heavily watered. Now she just had to let her breath do the lying, and they’d assume her to be less sober than she truly was. The Wandering Bard had taught her the uses of fooling others into thinking you an incompetent drunk.
“Greetings,” the Proceran said, inclining his head. “I am-“
“Jacques Milenan,” Thief interrupted lightly. “I know who you are, crusader.”
“And you are the Thief,” the Pilgrim said calmly.
He was leaning on his staff, Vivienne noted as she approached. Genuine tiredness or a ploy?
“That’s me,” she chuckled, making sure the breeze carried the smell of brandy.
She drank from the switched flask. The mundane envoy did not quite manage to hide his disdain.
“Request was made to treat with the Black Queen herself,” the Pilgrim said.
“That’s funny,” Thief said. “That you think you’re still in a position to make demands, I mean. I was under the impression a fifth of your army got wiped and you were one week away from beginning to dabble with cannibalism.”
“Has the queen refused to receive us, then?” the Pilgrim asked.
“Your side sends some spare kinsman and a man who tried to kill her, then expect Catherine to come out to make small talk?” Vivienne snorted. “I thought high-handed arrogance was a Proceran specialty, Pilgrim.”
“If you will not treat in good will, there is no need to treat at all,” the Milenan said flatly.
“So walk,” she said. “How much good will do you think you’ve earned, princeling? You invade our kingdom, attempt murder of our anointed queen and all the while plan to carve up our lands to dispense as favours. If every last one of you dies drowning, I will not shed a damned tear over it.”
The old man’s eyes narrowed. Not because of her words, at least not exactly. Because he’d been able to tell she was speaking the truth. He’d not expected a former heroine, if she’d ever truly been that, to say as much. The very reason Vivienne had said it: she needed to confirm whether or not he could still discern truth from lies, and the sentence was incendiary enough it should garner reaction. Good. She had confirmed it. Bad. He still had the ability, even when visibly tired. That complicated things, not that she’d expected the Heavens to provide relief. She wasn’t hanging with a crowd on their good side, nowadays.
“Negotiations with a lieutenant would not be binding,” the Pilgrim said.
“I can speak with my queen’s authority,” Vivienne said, and it was technically true.
She watched the hero closely as she spoke, trying to find out if that would register as lie. She’d never actually said that Catherine had given her mandate today, and in theory it wasn’t impossible for the Queen of Callow to grant this particular authority to her one day. The old man’s face remained unmoving, but that told her nothing. He was too clever to be caught through a visible tell twice.
“My instructions,” Jacques Milenan said, “are to treat with none but the Black Queen herself.”
“Black Queen’s not coming out for the likes of you,” Thief said, another technical truth. “Come back with your cousin or Princess Malanza and the matter will be reconsidered.”
If that worked, it might get them through the morning before the enemy realized a game was afoot. If it didn’t, well, all they had was suspicions. They had to be wary of a repeat of yesterday.
“This is not how proper diplomacy is conducted,” the Proceran stiffly said.
Vivienne toasted him with her flask.
“You’ll note my Name is not ‘the Diplomat’,” she replied, and took another pull.
She could feel the Pilgrim’s eyes on her. Searching, measuring.
“Then I would request audience with the queen personally,” the old man said.
“Unless you’ve suddenly gained a principality or right of command over the host, your function here is purely decorative,” Thief replied. “As far as I’m concerned you have no right to make that request.”
The hero sighed.
“I am willing to provide healing to wounded in exchange for the audience,” he said.
“Chosen,” the Proceran said. “Surely you cannot be serious.”
Thief drank from the flask again so her face would not be visible to read. This… Would Catherine and Masego qualify as wounded? She was not certain they would. And if they didn’t, she would be revealing their state for no gain. It would also mean taking the man at his word, which she hesitated to do. She’d ran with William’s crew long enough to know some of the more pragmatic heroes had notions about whether promises made to the Enemy needed to be kept. On the other hand, if those two could be healed most of the army’s problems went away. That, she decided, was worth the risk. The flask left her lips.
“An oath to the Heavens,” she said. “Of my own wording.”
“No,” the Grey Pilgrim said.
“Fine,” she conceded, idly waving her drink. “We can word it together.”
“You misunderstand me, child,” the old man said. “There will be no healing.”
“No audience either, then,” she shrugged. “We’ll expect an answer within the hour about whether or not Prince Milenan or Princess Malanza will be coming.”
“That will not happen either,” the Pilgrim said calmly. “You have betrayed yourself.”
Vivienne’s heartbeat quickened, but she kept her face smiling.
“Have I?” she drawled. “Then, by all means, take another swing. After you’re driven back, expect the cost of supplies to rise accordingly.”
The old man met her eyes with equanimity.
“You were a heroine, once,” he said.
“And just like that, you lost my interest,” Thief said. “See you around, gentlemen. I’d recommend your backers check on the state of their coffers before ordering an offensive. My heart would just weep if the price of retreat was destitution.”
And with that last lie ringing in the air, she turned and swaggered away. Shit. She’d been had. She’d put a good face on it, but on someone like the Grey Pilgrim the odds of it fooling him were depressingly low. Fuck.
Time to see how well they could bluff with an empty hand, then.
“She will be incapacitated,” Tariq said. “Not dead, for the Thief still had hope, but the Black Queen was hurt by the shattering of the gate.”
Princess Rozala considered the matter with due seriousness, to his approval. The young woman had been robbed of true morals by her uprising, but her mother had instilled her with a sense of honour and duty that allowed some small sliver of them to remain. She was forgiven this, for the fault was not her own. Children could not help what they were taught. Tariq held great hopes that the horrors of this war and the others to come would allow her to grow into the woman she could have been. It was a small thing, in this sea of darkness, but every speck of light drove back the night. It did not matter that the candle was small or passing, only that it burned. It was good to remember old wisdom, in days like these. The well-worn truths helped bring perspective to it all. Creation was imperfect, and would be until its very last breath. All the Heavens required of their children was to leave it a little brighter than they had found it. A hundred thousand pebbles make a tower, one piece at a time.
“Then we resume our offensive,” Princess Rozala said quietly. “Gods forgive us all, if we are wrong.”
The old man stilled his tongue as the Princess of Aequitan began discussing marching orders, watching the men and women at the table. These four, two princes and two princesses, were the mortal heart of this crusade. Or at least the part of it here in the north. Prince Amadis Milenan held the most sway, and it was to him the First Prince had granted command, but the Iserran had become almost self-effacing since the butchery of yesterday. He deferred to the general of the host in all things, and in him Tariq read both fear and cunning. The possibility of defeat, before thought absurd, had shaken him. Yet he was also subtly inviting Princess Rozala to overstep her authority, to further isolate herself from the other royals of the host by giving unpopular orders. Even now that he had glimpsed the abyss, the man schemed. The rot went deep in this one. Though we be flawed instruments, we may yet serve greater purpose, the Pilgrim chided himself. Imperfection was not sin but the very design of the Gods. Salvation without temptation was meaningless. The failure of a man to recognize his weakness should be met with pity and not blame.
The other two royals were smaller flames to these two, he would admit. Princess Adeline of Orne was young in a way that had little to do with age, and still bleeding from her brother’s death. He grieved with her for the loss, though he’d not known the man. The wake of his passing was recommendation enough for his nature. The princess sought alliance with Princess Rozala, and Tariq read admiration in Adeline’s heart when she gazed at the other woman. There could be friendship forged there, if trust bloomed, and they would both be happier for it. The Pilgrim half-smiled. Perhaps a helping hand could be leant to the matter. The last was Prince Arnaud of Cantal, and what the old man glimpsed there had surprised him. Laurence was a creature of pure instinct, having spent her lifetime blurring the boundary between thought and act, and her intuition was a sharp thing. Yet the Pilgrim had doubted her, when she’d said that one was the most dangerous of the lot. No longer so now that he had gazed within. All that lay there was patience and the utter absence of emotion. Tariq watched as the man blustered, speaking foolishly of sweeping advance, and how all the others dismissed him in their eyes. Even Prince Amadis, who thought himself the cleverest of them all.
All the others had warmed to Tariq, after Laurence acted as offensively in councils as she could. Offered him trust, treated him as the man of reason holding back the reckless Saint of Swords. All of them save Prince Arnaud of Cantal.
“I trust the Chosen will participate in the assault?” Prince Amadis asked.
Face never betraying that his attention had waned, the Pilgrim nodded.
“I have already spoken with Laurence,” he said. “Save for the Rogue Sorcerer and the Forsworn Healer, we will split with the armies and fight with the soldiers.”
Queen Catherine had brutalized the children, but not beyond repair. Antoine’s arm had been reattached, and another greatsword found for him to wield. With the coming of dawn, Tariq had been able to Forgive the death of Mansurin. The young man, displaying the famous fortitude of the Champion lines, had only been spurred to greater zeal by his stay Above. Little Sidonia, with her laughing eyes and quick wit, would have to remain under shroud of preservation until tomorrow. The Pilgrim still ached at the memory of seeing the young heroes reaped like wheat as he was held back by the Hierophant. He and Laurence had known that the best chance to spare lives was to slay the Black Queen early in the battle, and that to draw her out the children were the one bait she would not refuse. He regretted it still. Resurrection left a scar on the soul, always. No one could be ripped from the embrace of the Gods without finding Creation and faded and brutish place for the rest of their days, even if the memory of the Heavens was withheld. The Pilgrim excused himself as the council ended, paying due courtesies before returning to his own.
He found Laurence standing by the marshlands madness had made, repeatedly taking her sword an inch out of the sheath and sliding it back down. She was uneasy, then. Tariq came to stand by her side but did not speak. She would do so herself, when she was ready.
“I don’t like this,” the Saint finally said. “Feels wrong.”
He did not contradict her. Though Tariq had been granted insights, they were into the souls of mortals. Laurence de Montfort’s strength had come differently. Her sword had reached the Heavens, and by touching the divine with steel she had attained a sensitivity to the lay of Creation he had never seen the equal of in all his years. If she was troubled, there was reason for it.
“She may rise,” the Pilgrim said. “The shape of it is there. Wounded or unconscious, those she loves besieged, she may return to offer salvation at the darkest hour.”
“And that’s not a villain’s story, Tariq,” the woman grunted. “She’s hard to predict, and that’ll get people killed. You’re sure about what you saw?”
The Grey Pilgrim let out a tired breath.
“What Catherine Foundling craves above all is peace,” he murmured. “On chosen terms, perhaps, but peace nonetheless.”
His heart had broken a little to see it. That even though she had butchered all that she was, the little girl within was still desperately grasping at the light she’d once glimpsed Above.
“She killed thousands,” Laurence said. “And she’ll kill more, if she squeaks away here. Compassion’s not my wheelhouse, but whoever made her into what she is deserves a slow and painful death. She’s been twisted. No one sane would ever do what she did to her own soul.”
The child herself, the Pilgrim suspected, would be infuriated to hear someone speak of her that way. Her embrace of her own mistakes rivalled any flagellant’s.
“It is going to be a long war,” Tariq whispered, the weight of the years heavy on his shoulders.
“Longer for us than most,” Laurence replied, barking out a laugh. “We’ll be part of the five, old friend. You can be sure of it. I already feel the pull.”
The Pilgrim looked up at mockingly sunny skies. There would be a time, after the war turned here and the Red Flower Vales broke, where the Heavens would assemble their sharpest blade. The ancient forms would be observed. Five heroes, sent into the breach to quell the howling dark. Young Hanno would lead them, for the Seraphim had shaped him to the duty. As for the faces of the others, they could only guess. That charming young Valiant Champion was likely, as she’d followed the White Knight before. And there would have to be a practitioner. The most powerful of these was the Witch of the Woods, should she survive her confrontation with the Warlock. And the two of us, the Pilgrim added silently. Relics of an age already past, dusted off one last time. There was always a price to pay, to end the rise of Evil. Tariq hoped it was the two of them instead of young lives cut down before their prime.
“She’ll be there too,” Tariq said. “She always is.”
“Surprised she hasn’t dropped in yet,” the Saint admitted. “But it doesn’t smell like a brewery, and that’s fairly telling.”
“That worries me as much as your unease,” the Pilgrim said. “For if she has not yet appeared…”
“The worse is yet to come,” Laurence finished. “There’s a cheerful thought.”
She sighed and stretched her limbs.
“Well, no point putting it off,” she said. “Let’s go kill some people.”
So spoke Saint of Swords. The Regicide, to the Principate. The Smiling Iron, to the Chain of Hunger. The Fool-That-Cut-Nothing, to no one still living.
“Let’s put an end to this war,” he replied. “Before it gets worse.”
So spoke the Grey Pilgrim, whose names were too many to number. Fleet-foot and Patient Hand, the Kindly Stranger and the Peregrine.
Silence followed and legends went to war.